by Kyle K. Mann
Gonzo Today Contributing Editor and Publisher
Glamor professions aren’t glamorous for most practitioners trying to make a full-time living at it. And with the Covid era about to enter its third year, the people on the margins of fields like acting and music are experiencing an undeniable financial pinch.
There are a tiny percent doing mega-well, a vast majority being harshly winnowed out, and a smallish group of people in the middle. They ain’t superstars, but they have the skills, charisma and connections to make a decent living doing their thing. They are entertainers, and they enjoy entertaining. How cool is that?
Tin Drum the band was formed by Burleigh G. Drummond and Mary Harris over thirty years ago, with a distinguished roster of skilled musicians accompanying them. They have a number of CD’s available. Of all the fine incarnations of Tin Drum, the current Family Band version is my favorite.
So, I was grateful that the Tin Drum Family Band was gigging in Ventura County, because I could attend the show without being carded. No, not for my age, for a vax permit, which I do not possess. Let’s not go there. Anyway, unlike the county where I reside, Ventura does not require proof of injection, or multiple injections, or whatever the latest mandated crap is in L.A. County. Oop. Went there.
The Wine-Tasting Room
OK then. The venue was, to be frank, on the humble side: a medium-sized wine tasting outlet room, located in an upscale strip mall, and called Sunland Vintage Winery run by some good-natured, friendly people. No raised stage, just an area cleared of tables. No dedicated lights for performers. Just a room, and when I walked in a few minutes after six on a Friday night, not a ton of people. That would change, but six is an early start time on Friday night.
The talented sound guy did the best he could with the acoustics, but from my seat it was hard to hear the words distinctly. No matter. The Family Band wisely chose a selection of old and new originals, along with recognizable standards from a wide variety of sources, going back to the 60s and 70s.
I was handicapped by the fact that I don’t drink wine, and being in a wine tasting room, wine was all they had. That was fine with most of the arriving crowd, who by seven had packed the place, so much so that I had to share my table with cheerful wine quaffers. That was tolerable, but different, as I usually imbibe booze at these gigs, most often vodka. So I was actually straight. No matter. I concentrated on the music. Burleigh, Mary and Sierra’s voices blended in an extremely pleasing way, soothing me from a week of general horror, which I shouldn’t indulge in discussing.
Sierra’s musical chops are way up from doing a solo gig at The Old Place on Mulholland Highway. Singing and playing solo is demanding. She makes a living out of it currently, performing at tables at the upscale restaurant. I went one night recently and she sang me her song “Deep End” – an overwhelming experience.
A mild annoyance at this Family Band gig was that I couldn’t hear the 25 year old Sierra’s guitar, which she is excellent at playing. Fortunately, she also plays bass, and plays it well, and was switching back and forth between instruments on different tunes. Her electric bass cut through the murky wine tasting room acoustics, and mixed in with perfectly with her parents on drums and keys, which provided a powerful music bed for their vocals, with the solo voice, harmony duos and trios punching through the crust of everyday music listening.
The Amazing Music
When Sierra Drummond was on guitar, Mary Harris played keyboard bass lines, which she does extremely well. She also plays rhythmic chord progressions like a rock, often while singing backup vocals or lead. Since she has been married to Burleigh G. Drummond some astounding number of years, and performed onstage in the same band, Ambrosia, with him for the last decade, the tightness is extreme. In fact, the Fam Band is frightening to any musician who knows their stuff. They achieve a psychic unity that defies description.
The crowd was into it. They appreciatively applauded, hooted, and even danced, capering in sheer joy. Especially to songs they knew, like “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf. Now, you should understand I saw the early version of Steppenwolf, then rather ludicrously called The Sparrow. But it was the same band, and they were on the same bill with The Doors and Country Joe and the Fish in March 1967. That band had five guys and played the song. The Fam Band as a trio kicked ass on Magic Carpet Ride. They love playing it, and that enthusiasm fires people up, whether they saw the original John Kay-fronted band or not.
The three played their originals, some going back decades, some brand new, with authority and prowess. One of Mary’s originals always gets to me, her gorgeous ballad “Surrender.” Tears trickled down; the tune is that good. Yes you can buy it on one of the Tin Drum CD’s, the first one in fact, “Real World.” Brilliant.
Sierra debuted a brand new song at the gig, along with some of her originals from the past couple years. Her dad sang several excellent old chestnuts, like Ray Charles’ “Unchain My Heart” and they also nailed those. And even restricted to a minimal drum kit, Burleigh Drummond is a rhythmic powerhouse. I particularly noticed his cymbal work and miscellaneous percussion, like that shaker thing. Wonderful.
Sierra’s boyfriend Danny was up for a couple songs, and Mary’s sister Jackie sang one too. All fine work. Relaxed. Friendly. Funny. Lovable.
The Reviewer is Invited Up
When I least expected it, Sierra called me up at the last minute to play harmonica. You’d think after over 50 years of playing this unprepossessing instrument that I’d be used to this. I had a big bag of loose, unsorted diatonic harps out in my car, and rushed out to the parking lot laughing and cursing to dig out a C. It was one of Sierra’s gentle songs, a folk-country offering that I’ve played a couple of times with her previously. What an honor, really. What made it special for me was that her parents had never, in 30 years plus, never heard me play in that style, with the microphone on a stand, not handheld, and using my hands to get a country-style vibrato, almost a campfire effect. It went well, and I resumed sitting at my table with the suddenly impressed quaffers, feeling accomplished.
However, later in the set I took a hosing. Called up in the middle of a tune, a boogie-woogie rocker Burleigh wrote for his wife in tribute called “Something ‘Bout Mary,” I was stuck with that same C harmonica. Meaning that the damn thing was in straight position. Like Bob Dylan. Not bluesy cross harp. So fake it I did, and people were kind enough to complement me, but it was stressful. Amusing too. A very bizarre mix. “You did good, Kyle,” Mary laughed after the show.
Which brings up a candid point. I love seeing my musician friends on stage out of their comfort zone. It’s intensely amusing to see how they adapt. Usually I roar with admiring laughter when they pull a rabbit out of a hat. So I suppose its fair for me to have to, uh, face the music when I’m outta my own zone and the shoe is on the other foot. But from now on I’m gonna always show up at Tin Drum gigs with all twelve keys in an organized case. I’m getting too old for surprises that force me to think fast and furious. Especially on stage.
But let’s wrap this up with some observations about the Ambrosia tunes that the Family Band played. Not just covered, but interpreted brilliantly.
The Ambrosia Connection
Now, Ambrosia the band was formed the early 70s with 4 original members, including Burleigh Drummond. Mary joined Ambrosia as a full-time member in 2012, and has since performed many hundreds of shows with the band. Together, they are a solid core. Burleigh has played literally thousands of gigs with them since the formation of Ambrosia over a half century ago. So the band’s songs, especially the 70s and 80s hits, are extremely familiar to Mary and Burleigh.
I was surprised when they announced Ambrosia’s “You’re the Only Woman.” I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Ambrosia live, but it’s in double figures. The song is well-known to a lot of people. Could Mary and Burleigh pull off a creditable version of the famous hit single as a trio, substituting the other four current members with their daughter Sierra?
The answer was, of course, yes.
Burleigh singing the lead was a treat. It had to be liberating to sing it after 50 years of literally taking a back seat on the song. Sierra and Mary’s vocal backups were stellar… how could this be only 3 musicians?
But the final test was “Biggest Part of Me,” Ambrosia’s traditional show closer and the band’s biggest hit. An audience will generally applaud the announcement of the song, and the musical intro. Another huge moment for the trio as they launched into it.
Sierra’s husky, powerful voice filled the room with her original stylings, a triumph of musicality and youthful energy. Mary’s versatile keyboard, the only chording instrument, padded out the changes while she shared the lead vocals with her daughter, trading lines effortlessly. Sierra’s bass guitar held the bottom, locked in with her dad on drums. Her parents beamed with pride as they joined in on their instruments and backing vocals.
A massive win!
The evening concluded with Mary’s recent original, “Hold On,” her reaction to the current hideous Covid era. A superlative, masterful artwork. Wild applause. The Tin Drum Trio had just played a three hour set with a short break in the middle. They threw the kitchen sink at us, and we loved it.
In my view the show was a kind of graduation party for Sierra, who now stands tall as a fully-fledged member and front woman for the band. The spiritual combination of the Family Band gives it a powerful punch that is oddly both subtle and overwhelming.
No of course I’m not objective; I’ve known these people forever. But the crowd’s reaction backs me up. Add back in Burleigh Drummond the Younger, Sierra’s older brother and another multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and singer who was on tour, and you have an even more powerful force. This is a family that plays music together extremely well. For those many of us with dysfunctional upbringing, seeing The Family Band and hearing them onstage is therapy.
I used to tell these wonderful people repeatedly, after seeing them play out live as a four-piece family band years ago for the first time, that the Fam Band was IT, and said it so often that it got to be a bit of a joke between us. Now the Fam Band is the standard version of Tin Drum. I hope it’s OK for me to pat myself on the back, because they are indeed, dear reader, a truly special experience.
The Tin Drum Family Band will be playing the Sunland Vintage Winery again in Thousand Oaks, California, on March 4th, 2022 at 6PM. With the Blessing, I’ll be there.
Kyle K. Mann
February 12, 2022